By GREG BEACHAM, AP Sports Writer
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — Lonzo Ball is staying home with the Los Angeles Lakers, and the point guard is one big part of Magic Johnson’s grand plan to return them to championship contention.
The Lakers selected Ball with the second overall pick in the NBA draft Thursday night, eagerly accepting the potential risks and enormous rewards surrounding the sublime UCLA playmaker with an attention-grabbing father.
“This is crazy,” a calm Ball said in a phone interview. “You can’t really tell by my emotions, but I feel good. I’m happy to be home.”
Later in the first round, the Lakers underlined their commitment to Ball by officially trading point guard D’Angelo Russell, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft. Russell and Timofey Mozgov’s onerous contract went to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick, Utah forward Kyle Kuzma.
Los Angeles then traded the 28th overall pick to Utah for the 30th and 42nd picks, landing Villanova forward Josh Hart and Indiana center Thomas Bryant.
The youngsters are a big part of the Lakers’ future after the worst four-year stretch in franchise history, but general manager Rob Pelinka also confirmed that Johnson’s strategy is to land big free-agent stars in 2018.
Pelinka said the 16-time NBA champions traded Russell and Mozgov largely to clear enough salary cap space to add two max-contract players next summer. Magic and Pelinka firmly believe the Lakers’ famous brand and young core will be attractive to a free-agent class likely to include Paul George, LeBron James and other proven veterans.
“There’s just a renewed energy around here,” Pelinka said. “With Earvin’s vision and his persona, I think the organization is really taking on that positive joy that he seems to live with every day. I think players around the NBA feel that as well and are going to be attracted to that energy here. We know that the goal here is to compete for championships. With the leading teams in the league today, we felt like to be able to look them in the eye and challenge them, we need two superstar players to come here and join this platform and join our core group of great players that we now have.”
Those schemes are a year away from fruition, however. This night belonged to Ball, the point guard who led the nation with 7.7 assists per game last season a few miles up the 405 freeway with the Bruins.
With preternatural court vision, a solid scoring touch and a desire to become a leader, the Los Angeles-area native had everything that his favorite team’s top brass wanted.
“He’s the type of player that, when he’s on the floor, all four guys that are out there with him become better instantly,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “And that’s a quality and a trait that not many people have. The great ones all have it, and we hope that by the way he plays, everyone else on our team becomes better.”
Pelinka rhapsodized about Ball’s passing skills, comparing the teenager to Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Magic himself — and even Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
“There’s something very, very special about his basketball abilities,” Pelinka said. “The vision and ability that Lonzo has just puts him in a class of being a transcendent talent.”
The Lakers also aren’t worried about attaching themselves to LaVar Ball , the voluble family patriarch with aspirations of building a global sports empire around his three talented sons, one $495 pair of sneakers at a time.
LaVar Ball has vowed that oldest son Lonzo would end up with the Lakers for two years, claiming he could speak his dream into existence. Moments after it became a reality at the draft in New York, LaVar pulled on a purple-and-gold hat featuring the logo of his Big Baller Brand company — and then declared Lonzo will lead the Lakers back to the playoffs next season as a rookie.
“I’m a very optimistic person, but I don’t look that far into the future,” Walton said. “Right now, I’m hoping (Lonzo) leads us to a couple of summer league victories, and we’ll take it from there.”
Lonzo Ball didn’t blink at his father’s latest pronouncement: “You don’t play to lose, so that’s definitely the goal. … I think they have enough talent. The right people are in charge.”
Ball usually grins or sighs when his father gets on the microphone, but he openly acknowledged he also wanted to land with the Lakers, who needed a serendipitous draft lottery to end up with the second pick.
Kuzma impressed the Lakers in a recent draft workout with an outside shooting touch complementing his physical inside game. He is also an above-average passer.
Hart was the only senior drafted in the first round, and most observers think the Lakers got an NBA-ready talent in the former national champion. The Big East player of the year scored 18.7 points per game last season and excelled as a wing defender.
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